It starts with a lone astronaut narrating the apocalypse that turned Earth into a wasteland. “We won the war but lost the planet,” explains Jack (Tom Cruise), as he patrols the cracked-rock surface. After a nuclear war with parasitical aliens, what was left of the human race was evacuated, but Jack and his partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), remain as sentinels and supervisors of an extraction operation, working from a modular base that’s leagues above the surface.
If Oblivion, a sci-fi actioner about the end of the world, sounds familiar, much of it is. But director Joseph Kosinski, the brilliant visual stylist responsible for the look of TRON: Legacy, works within the sci-fi genre much as if it were a western, though instead of a lone gunman drawing a six-shooter from his holster, Oblivion relies on a lone pilot marshalling a posse of drones over the forbidding terrain. As Jack tries to sift through his virtual information—such as a ballgame he never actually watched—from the remnants of his real life, the film reworks traditional tropes into a thoughtfully entertaining and artistically stunning meditation on identity.
For though Jack is completely comfortable in his regimented routine, he is bewildered by “memories” of a dark-haired girl (Olga Kurylenko) he knew in New York City before the war 60 years previous. Only Jack wasn’t born then, and anyway, his memory was wiped to protect the extraction operation if he should fall into the wrong, nonhuman hands. While exploring an old ruin—the New York Public Library—Jack has a shoot-out with some marauding aliens. To his intense bewilderment, the “scavs,” as they’re called, seemed to be trying to capture him instead of kill him. This episode causes Jack to question his reality, especially the reality of who he might really be. Jack’s faith in mission command is further shaken when he discovers a crashed module with humans in it.
Kosinski, who co-wrote the script, uses the terrain, including geology and, especially, topography, for narrative texture as well as for some soaring and exciting action sequences. Oblivion is not especially character-driven, but as the plot thickens, and it does after Jack discovers an enclave of survivors under the leadership of an elderly engineer (Morgan Freeman, whose steampunk goggles deliberately evoke the retro eyewear of Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix), depth of character becomes subservient to the story (even so, Cruise is a bit distant, especially compared to his previous mission to upstate New York in War of the Worlds).
But it’s an intelligent, unpredictable story that rewards close attention, despite an overabundance of jaw-dropping aerial battles. It’s especially successful at invoking the environmentally cautionary sci-fi films of the 1970s, and this emphasis on man’s inhumanity to man’s environment makes it a more substantive summer blockbuster than other recent otherworld adventures such as Avatar or Prometheus.